Nickels Turns on a Dime

It was straight out of the movies. A tough, purposeful mayor strides to the podium and delivers his Big Decision. His lines are perfect. It was really kind of bizarre.

I'm not in the habit of heaping praise on Greg Nickels. But he really had a fine moment last week.

In the mayor's announcement of the city's withdrawal of permits for the monorail, there really wasn't anything Nickels didn't say. He laid it out clearly. His statement covered the reasons we're all too familiar with for spiking this ill-fated project. And Nickels hit just the right tone—sadness, that a good idea should come to this, but firmness, that in the interest of taxpayers this reckless project should not be allowed to proceed.

Nickels didn't have to do this. He has been a big monorail supporter, after all. He could have let the monorail board deal with it, or the City Council, or (most inevitable) the Legislature. It was a fine example of leadership, of stepping up to the plate and making a tough decision.

Like I said, I'm not used to this heaping of praise on Nickels. But he earned it.

The next question, to be settled this week, is the nature of the measure to be on November's ballot. Will the monorail board come up with its own, or will it be a straight up-or-down vote on the existence of the Seattle Monorail Project? Mercifully, it will be a short campaign. After five ballot measures, we know all the arguments for and against. Maybe, just maybe, SMP can come up with a plan between now and November that will convince voters that it is a viable project—that it has the revenue to build the Green Line without leaving Seattle taxpayers in debt for 50 years and that it hasn't hopelessly whittled down the project's features to the point where safety and rider convenience are fatally compromised.

Maybe. But I doubt it. That's exactly the sort of wishful thinking that got SMP into trouble to begin with.

At this point, sadly, there is no future for this project. Seattle needs to start over, to take the money and the energy that would have gone into the monorail and divert it into some other plan for loosening gridlock. The transportation projects that most need Seattle taxpayer dollars aren't as exciting or sexy as the monorail, but they're more essential: a replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a new Highway 520 floating bridge, the repaving of Interstate 5 through Seattle. With federal dollars drying up in the next few years and with the gas-tax increase likely to be repealed by statewide voters in November, chances are that if we want these essential projects to happen, we're going to have to pay for them ourselves, locally. Forget, for the time being, light-rail expansion—the money just doesn't exist for it.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct will be Nickels' next great challenge. With state money via the gas tax likely to disappear, he still doesn't have most of the financing in place for his preferred, pricey waterfront tunnel. Nickels may have to realize that the money for an expensive tunnel option isn't available. But Nickels is right to make the viaduct the priority—we're one medium-sized earthquake away from losing it.

Meanwhile, there will be plenty of time for dissecting what went wrong with the monorail. Ultimately, it was a victim of its own populism. A transit system that needed analysis in the cold light of day was saddled with True Believers who took offense every time someone tried to point out that the numbers didn't add up. It wasn't just that former Executive Director Joel Horn and former board Chair Tom Weeks bamboozled everybody. The monorail faithful simply didn't want to hear skeptics.

A year ago, when a recall measure made the fall ballot, all the arguments were out there. There was still plenty of time to correct course, to make the process more transparent and accountable and to make the numbers add up. It could have been changed. It could have been saved.

Now it's too late. And as SMP continues to burn through money and try to save itself, I think voters are likely to do the right thing in November. Just like Greg Nickels did last week.

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